Stefano the Albanian turned up in a brand new Audi off-roader, cutting quite the dash. He looked older, with some silver flecks in his black hair and beard that were rather distinguished.
How to explain my predicament? It was tricky. I hadn’t been in touch since I’d asked him for a quote to renovate the ‘dream’ cottage. But then the builder boyfriend submitted his tender for the work, and talked me round. I argued vociferously that we would only fall out and that made the stakes too high. But the BB insisted. He made it a matter of his honour. He could not allow another builder to build on what he considered his patch. So I caved in against my better instincts, and of course, three months into the work, I was proved right.
The BB and I had a meltdown under the strain of our various trials and tribulations and he told me to stick my ‘dream’ cottage where the sun didn’t shine.
It was upsetting, of course. But what could I do? I had to finish the house. So I texted Stefano to tell him I was sorry about the delay but I had been having some issues — true enough — and was only ready to start now.
He arrived on my doorstep a few days later, reliable as ever, and walked around the half-done house. I held my breath, waiting for him to say how cross he was that I had let someone else start and was now asking him to finish. But he looked at the new plumbing and the new electrics, and the knocked-out walls and the holes in the floor, and the heaps of rubble in the basement, and he ran his hands along the walls that had been plastered by the BB’s plastering mates, not him, and then he opened his mouth to speak, as I held my breath.
And in a whisper, as is his way when saying something important, he stroked the newly plastered walls and said: ‘This…very… nice… job.’
Turning to Terry the plumber’s gleaming rows of copper piping reaching from floor to ceiling through the gaps in the walls, like a cathedral organ, he said: ‘This… is… spectacular!’
‘Do you really think so?’ I said.
Whispering as if imparting state secrets, he said: ‘Is… so… good is… shame to cover up!’
‘I’m so pleased you like it,’ I said, feeling a confusing mixture of relief and guilt. Was he just being gracious? What had I done to deserve such a break?
‘So you don’t mind finishing it?’ I tried. ‘I mean, I’m sorry I didn’t get you in before but, well, there were issues.’
‘Issues. Yes,’ said Stefano, an enigmatic look on his face. His smile was inscrutable.
‘Will you do it? Soon? I’m getting a bit desperate.’ But he was looking at the new bathroom.
‘This tiling… very… nice,’ he said, running his hands along the grout.
‘Please can you start soon?’ I prompted.
‘Soon. Yes. This…’ He was stroking the ceiling. ‘This… very… good job. Very… smooth…’
It’s not the only thing that’s very smooth. I always get the feeling with Stefano that he knows everything. I don’t know how he knows, but he knows. He wasn’t the least bit surprised about me letting the BB start the renovations, and he wasn’t the least bit surprised when I called him three months later.
He had factored it in. In all likelihood, he gave me his quote and then went on another job and pencilled into his diary, three months to the day, a note to remind himself that I would be in touch any time now.
I have discovered this insouciance is a not uncommon knack used by those who are called upon to rescue me.
The gamekeeper was a case in point. I asked him to help me look after the dogs and he turned up to collect a set of keys with a full set of tools on board the Defender.
He sighed as he went around the house checking if anything needed urgent attention, before climbing into the loft and drilling timbers into places he felt needed extra support.
As he was loading his stuff back into the Defender, his phone rang. ‘I’ll be with you in about ten minutes, mate. I’m just sorting a few things out for Melissa. Yeah, Mad Melissa.’
It was one of the boys from the shoot. ‘Does he really call me Mad Melissa?’ I asked. ‘Yup,’ said the keeper. I thought for a moment. As he backed out, I asked him through the wound-down window: ‘Do you think he calls me that because I’m all over the place and always in some fix or other, or do you think it’s because I’m, you know, eccentric and interesting?’
‘What do you think?’ said the keeper, a half-smile creasing his face.